Little Erik, a family drama, now playing at the Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley, California, is an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 1894 “Little Eyolf” – a lesser known play, not as often performed in the theatres around the world as the other masterpieces of the great Norwegian. Nonetheless, adapting from a master always has its indelible perks, no matter how contemporary, simplified, or sometimes superficial the new approach might be. The solid foundation of the plot and character structure is there, and infusing the action with crowd-pleasing familiar details of today almost always is a surefire way to success.
Adapted [with a changed ending], and transported into our day and time, and in San Francisco, the play is written and directed by the Bay Area’s own Mark Jackson, and presents a rather uneven spectacle. It seems that all elements from writing and directing to acting tend to diminish from one character to another; strong outlines and bold strokes fading and receding as if in the Pacific fog…
The character of Erik’s unwilling mother Joie (excellently performed by Marilee Talkington) – a strong and attractive business woman, and a bread winner in the family – is easily recognizable with all its inherent negativity, yet unexpectedly admirable in its straightforward honesty and unconcealed vulnerability.A child-actor Jack Wittmayer as the little cripple Erik is nothing short of miraculous. His very disability is performed with so much physical persuasion that the viewers have to wonder until the curtain time if the kid is really just playing his part or was cast for it for his physical defect. Not to mention his acting skills that shine throughout the role.
Joie’s husband, Freddie (Joe Estlack), who is supposed to be his wife’s gentle parasite with an idea to write a great novel about human responsibility, but mostly just wandering the world and enjoying his new self-imposed penance as a devoted father, comes across a little too mushy and spineless for his mate, even more so for his two mates (as the story reveals).Freddie’s paternal sister, Andi (Mariah Castle) is supposed to shock with revelations, simultaneously scandalous and soothing, but instead leaves the audience cold. It’s hard to point the exact reason for the viewers’ indifference to her fate, but many things she says and does just don’t ring true. This is especially disheartening since the accents in the play are so obviously moved to Andi as the title character that our highest expectations rest with her.
Then comes the supernatural/folk/mythical [think Pied Piper] character of The Rat Wife. Performed with a lot of skill by Wilma Bonet, it remains highly confusing in its contradiction between a stereotype of a Hispanic nanny/housekeeper and vicious implications she utters. Even though The Rat Wife arrives on stage with the initial light and sound effect, and with a stare that’s supposed to startle, the role lacks real creepiness and sends out a rather unclear message.
The character of Bernie (Greg Ayers), the architect of the family’s weekend home in the mountains and a hopeful friend of Andi, is also performed with a lot of skill, but on its own delivers little information as to who this guy really is and what is he doing in this family drama in relation to the child and the other adults.The least believable part of the play is its ending, and while the original version, granted, might seem too sentimental for the contemporary age, what we get instead is bordering on ridiculous.
Despite all its imperfections, this new play, developed at Aurora, is definitely worth seeing – for the abovementioned reason of being adapted from the great playwright as well as for the writer/director’s provocative vision, the actors’ genuine involvement, and the outstanding work of the creative team (Nina Ball – sets, Christine Crook – costumes, Heather Basarab – lights, Matt Stines – sound, Wolfgang Lancelot Wachalovsky – video).
Little Erik is playing now through February 28 at Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley, CA.
More information and tickets at: 510-843-4822 or www.auroratheatre.org.
Images: courtesy Aurora Theatre Company.